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What Were the Main Causes of the Arab Spring in 2011-12?


The Arab spring is a term that refers to the uprisings that happened in the Arab world between 2011 and 2012 (Salih, 2013). The uprisings involved civil resistance that was characterised by rallies, marches, demonstrations and protests, which culminated in the fall of several regimes within the Arab world. The term Arab world is often used in reference to Arabic-speaking countries, which include Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, and Northern Sudan among others (Salih, 2013). Of all the countries that have been mentioned above, only Northern Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had minor protests. The rest had major protests which involved sustained campaigns by citizens who were demanding for change in governance. In the end, several governments, including those in Egypt and Tunisia, were toppled. In Libya, a civil war took place and the government of Muammar Gaddafi came to an end (Salih, 2013). Notably, the series of civil resistance that occurred in the Arab world started when a young fruit vendor – Mohamed Bouazizi – set himself on fire in protest against the harassment and humiliation he had allegedly gone through in the hands of a Tunisian municipal official (Rozsa et al., 2012). A lot has been written about why the Arab Spring happened. Most of the reasons given are hypothetical and the literature does not largely agree about the causes of the social and political events that occurred in the larger Arab world. This essay will draw from literature and attempt to identify the main reasons for the Arab spring. The paper has a discussion section where three main possible causes are identified and a conclusion section, which reiterates the main points discussed in the essay.


While Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation may have triggered civil protests in Tunisia, Rozsa et al. (2012) argue that there were deep-seated issues in all the Arab countries that were involved in the civil uprisings between 2011 and 2012. According to El-Ghobashy (2011), the Arab world had experienced decades of political authoritarianism, ineffective economic policies, and social alienation particularly among young people who were the majority in most of the affected Arab countries. Based on the foregoing sentiments, this essay will identify and discuss the political, economic and social reasons that led to the Arab Spring.

Political reasons

Olofsgard and Yousef (2011) note, the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world had struck a bargain with the populations where the latter were promised subsidies in exchange for political loyalty. For instance, citizens were assured of a welfare state and government jobs (Desai et al. 2011). The minimum economic safety that most governments had promised, however, was eroded with time. For instance, the welfare was reduced drastically as the oil process that fuelled most Arabian countries’ economies fell. As a result of the reduced welfare, the populations no longer considered the governments fully legitimate (Desai et al., 2011). In other words, the legitimacy of the authoritarian governments was eroded when they could not guarantee the citizens’ economic safety. The authoritarian governments had existed for years, and although Dalacoura (2012) argues that the timing of the uprising cannot be fully explained, it is somewhat evident that every society has a tipping point when things become unbearable, especially for the new breed of thinkers – i.e. the youth – who crave for more political autonomy. reasons that seemingly contributed to the Arab spring include political authoritarianism. According to Gause III (2012), Lebanon was the only country in the Arab world that had changed it political leadership democratically in a generation prior to the Arab spring. Moreover, the average Arab leader stayed in power for approximately 22 years. The discontentment among citizens was further fuelled by the traditions in the Arab countries where the centres of power were ruling dynasties, tribes, or the military (Gause III, 2012). As Desai,The political

As Salih (2013) notes, most governing regimes prior to the uprising were not only authoritarian but also repressive and violent. Moreover, many such regimes had consolidated power and had paved way for political succession to happen within particular families. To complicate issues even further, citizens were denied most fundamental rights and freedoms including the freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of organisation. It has also been noted that for some regimes in the Arab countries to remain in power, violence and extensive violations of the citizens’ human rights were perpetrated (Salih, 2013).

Overall, bad political ideologies led to a suppressed citizenry who watched helplessly as corruption became the norm and those who dared question government reportedly became victims of torture, unwarranted arrests and abduction (Dalacoura, 2012). In extreme cases, those who criticised the government had unfair trials and convictions and were eventually killed (Dalacoura, 2012). The misuse of political power hence appears to be one of the major provocations that inspired people to participate in the uprisings.

Economic reasons

).Economic reasons are also cited as reasons why the Arab Spring occurred. According to Douglas et al. (2014) the economic misery experienced by citizens in most countries in the Arab World fuelled the uprising. Economic growth in most such countries, for example, is indicated to have benefitted a few people who were politically connected (Douglas et al. 2014

Poverty is cited as one of the key reasons why the Arab Spring occurred (Dalacoura, 2012). Tunisia, for example, had a robust economy, but the deprivation among some population demographics (e.g. the youth) left many discouraged and willing to advocate for changes in the country (Dalacoura, 2012). Moreover, there was rampant corruption, high rates of unemployment among the youth, high food prices, and social inequalities in the larger Arabian world (Noland & Pack, 2007). Wealth was concentrated among the ruling elite while the majority of the population was struggling. Even more critical was that the governments in power at the time were perceived not to pay enough attention to the economic inequalities that left most people aged between 19 and 29 without jobs and incomes.

The youth bulge in the Arab world is also cited as another social reason for the uprising. According to Malik and Awadallah (2011), the youth bulge and increased literacy rates translated to a high number of people who competed for a few jobs and consequently a relatively high unemployment rate. Interestingly, high levels of educational achievement were championed by the same governments through investments in the education sector. Consequently, young people were aspiring for inclusion in the workplace, despite the fact that employment in both the dominant public sector and in the private sector was saturated (Malik & Awadallah, 2011). The failure of the Arab countries to create a strong enough private sector that is connected to the globalised marketplace also indirectly contributed to the unemployment problem. Notably, the public sector in most countries is limited in terms of the number of jobs that it can create per year. Therefore, a more vibrant private sector would be better positioned to create job opportunities for the young people. As Malik and Awadallah (2011) observe, the private sector in most Arab countries “is determined more by patronage than entrepreneurship” and as a result, it is unable to prosper and generate jobs for the youth in those countries (p. 3). Arguably, the economies in the Arab world were unresponsive to the needs presented by the growing populations, which led to stagnated social and economic mobility among the youth, hence creating dissatisfaction and ultimately, dissension.

Economic stagnation is also another reason why the Arab spring happened. According to Patridge (2011), the Arab world has despite its oil wealth, experienced decades of underdevelopment. Ineffective economic policies and institutions are just some of the reasons cited for negative economic growth in some countries and the contracting of real gross domestic product in those countries. Citizens had tougher times as the economies stagnated because as Patridge (2011) observes, middle-income earnings were squeezed hence enlarging the gap between high and low income earners. In the period 2008-2009, the countries in the Arab world suffered more negative consequences on their economies as a result of low oil prices (Ansani & Danielle, 2012). Additionally, the remittances sent by emigrants back home in the Arabic countries reduced drastically, thus making an already bad situation worse. Perhaps even worse is the observation that most state-firms were intent on creating jobs to please specific constituents, but not because they were interested in creating productive goods (Gerges, 2014; Patridge, 2011). In the end, therefore, one would expect that state-run firms became places where political allegiances were rewarded and professionalism and productivity had little meaning if any. Such circumstances would have irked many citizens, hence their eagerness to join the protests that characterised the Arab Spring.

Increases in food prices also had a role to play in the Arab Spring (Dalacoura, 2012). Notably, bread riots were a normal occurrence in the Arab world as indicated by Ansani and Danielle (2012). In 2007-2008 for example, riots protesting the increase in food prices occurred in Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Interestingly, Ansani and Danielle (2012) observe that food prices are often mediated by governments in the Arab countries that depend on natural resources (oil) as this allows them (governments) to draw relevance and consent from the populations. Dalacoura (2012) also notes that most middle income earners spend most of their money on food items, and an increase in prices means that they are left with less disposable income, hence the frequency of riots. Arguably, the interference of governments in setting food prices is what inspires the bread riots because populations are well aware that their respective governments have the ability to influence the prices down.

Social reasons

Social reasons are also a possible cause of the Arab spring. Dodge (2013) is one author who firmly believes that the Arab Spring could not have happened if a social awakening had not preceded it. In other words, Dodge (2013) argues that prior to the 2011-2012 events, the citizens in the larger world were more aware of their social, political and economic disadvantages, and were even more informed that there was a better way of doing things in all the three fronts. Consequently, more people were willing to try this new way of life and a civil unrest was the only possibility they could use to upset the status quo. William Quandt (cited by Dodge, 2013) observes that the authoritarian regimes in the larger Arab world depended on elite solidarity, payoffs, repression, and ideology to survive. The rising awareness among populations that repression was against the very nature of humankind led them to question the ideologies they had come to believe as the truth over the years, and eventually, this seemingly led to discontentment and ultimately, the uprising.

Another social reason for the uprising was that governments in most of the Arab countries had stayed in power for long and were increasingly unpopular among the youth (Gerges, 2014). The unpopular governments, which were in effect headed by people who considered themselves presidents-for-life, had made no effort to strike a rapport with the young people who were the majority in many of the Arab countries. In Egypt for instance, Dalacoura (2012) indicates that Hosni Mubarak was increasingly unpopular among the young people. This was despite the fact that he had been adored by earlier generations.

The military regimes in the Arab world (particularly in Egypt and Tunisia) also played a key role in the uprising by supporting the causes advocated by the masses. As Gause III (2011) observes, the armies in Egypt and Tunisia were relatively liberal and did not serve as instruments of incumbent governments. Moreover, army leaders in both countries appeared enthusiastic to oust the old regimes.

The interconnectedness of the Arab world is also a social aspect that could have played a key role in the Arab Spring. As Dalacoura (2012) observes, countries in the Arab world are dissimilar in many ways; however, they are also linked by the ‘Arabian’ heritage. Enhancing this connectivity were satellite television that can be watched by Arabs across the countries and the Internet, through which people can communicate easily and in real time (Dickey, 2011). Awareness was also created through social media, which was increasingly in use by the discontented masses in the Arab world. For example, in Egypt, a Facebook page dubbed “We are all Khaled Said” was started in honour of a man who had been clobbered to death by police in that country, and was used to mobilise thousands of supporters against the government (Gause III, 2011). The people involved in the demonstrations against the government were clamouring for political freedom. Anderson (2011) however contends that social media is just a modern incarnation of nationalist networks in the Arab world, where strategies for civil disobedience are spread amongst people in different countries in the region as happened in 1919 after the First World War. It is nonetheless important to note that while communication connectivity played a key role in spreading the riots, the key reasons that inspired the riots were mainly political oppression, economic misfortunes, and social oppression.


The Arab Spring occurred in several countries in the Arab world and was characterised by a series of riots, demonstrations and rallies. The culmination of the civil unrest was the deposition of several government regimes in the region such as the then Tunisian and Egyptian governments. In some countries like Syria, however, the strife, which has now culminated into war, is still ongoing. In other countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Algeria, no major changes occurred as a result of the revolt because the governments there were able to rein in the protestors, effectively stopping any civil action.

In this essay, three causes of the Arab spring have been identified – political, economic, and social. The political reasons seem to relate more to the autocratic governments and their poor governance practices that seemingly allowed corruption and oppression of the masses to thrive. Economic reasons relate to factors such as the high unemployment rates, lack of disposable incomes and the high cost of food that were common in the Arab world countries. The low oil prices that occurred during the 2008-2009 recession also seem to have exacerbated the bad economic situation. The social causes of the Arab Spring include the bulging youth population, the governments’ inability to create a rapport with the youth population, military support for the unrest, and the interconnectedness of the Arab world. Arguably, there is no simple way to identify the exact main reasons why the Arab Spring happened the way it did and at the time that it occurred. However, it is safe to conclude that none of the factors mentioned here has more weight than others as a causative factor of the Arab Spring. Instead, one can deduce that it is the coming together of different factors mentioned here that led to the uprising. Overall, it appears that the foundations of the Arab uprising were laid far back through government policies that disenfranchised many people while creating opportunities for a few politically connected people.


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